Maria Sharapova received a two-year suspension for violating the International Tennis Federation's anti-doping policy. Chronologically, it's not a long time. Career-wise, it might represent a death sentence.
Until now, Russian tennis officials and fans were still discussing whether Sharapova would be eligible for August's Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro. Now it's fair to wonder if she'll ever contend at the French Open, US Open or any event again. Unless her punishment is reduced when the Court of Arbitration for Sport hears her appeal, she will return to the tour just months short of her 31st birthday.
That might not seem like a prohibitive age for a Grand Slam title contender. Serena Williams won Wimbledon at 33. Francesca Schiavone won her first major title at the 2010 French Open, just days before her 30th birthday. But for Sharapova, who has a career Grand Slam, this is a different case.
She already has a long history of health setbacks. She went down with a career-threatening right shoulder injury that required surgery in 2008. It was the first of three right shoulder injuries for the five-time Grand Slam champion.
Most recently, Sharapova pulled out three different tournaments, starting in the fall of 2015, because of a left forearm injury. Then she tested positive for meldonium at the Australian Open this year and later in an out-of-competition test in Moscow, where Russia was scheduled to play Fed Cup later that week.
She did not play in the Fed Cup tie, citing the left forearm injury. With her suspension looming, she also pulled out of Qatar and Indian Wells with the same ailment.
The nature of Sharapova's game might make it hard for her to reclaim her place near the top. When she's in a groove, she's lethal -- a first-strike player capable of making startling, line-painting placements. But when she loses her rhythm or if her confidence flags, her double faults and unforced errors come in bunches.
Even at her youthful best, Sharapova was never able to fall back on consistency, speed and/or tactical flexibility to win matches and build confidence.
True, Sharapova is a tireless worker. She'll fight for every point until the bitter end. Yet the players who have demonstrated the greatest longevity generally are those more gifted, with the kind of athleticism Sharapova lacks: Martina Navratilova, Roger Federer, Serena and Venus Williams and even Schiavone.
Sharapova knows better than anyone how much consistency it takes to get back to the top of the game. It's a mountain she has had to climb a few times, and it was always a lengthy process. The road back after surgery in 2008 was a long and bumpy one. She was out of singles action for 10 months and did not return to the top 10 until April 2011.
The last major title Sharapova won was at the French Open in 2014. If the past is any indication, and if she loses her appeal, Sharapova might not have the opportunity to win another. And so much for leavening that dismal 2-19 record against Serena with a face-saving win or two -- something an astute Sharapova back must have been banking on.
The irony is stinging. Serena and Sharapova are the two most high-profile female tennis players on the planet. Yet Williams has utterly dominated Sharapova for more than a decade. But age levels the playing field, and Williams, deep into her 34th year, is five years older than Sharapova. Now Sharapova won't be able to take advantage of Williams' waning years the way Angelique Kerber or Garbine Muguruza recently did.
A failed comeback could also do great damage to Sharapova's legacy. Martina Hingis, after testing positive for cocaine, chose to retire rather than endure a public airing of her case and the potential problems of suspension and comeback. She is back now, though as a doubles icon.
Sharapova is unlikely to ever be a doubles star. Yet she certainly will be young enough to make a comeback even if her full suspension is upheld. The more pertinent question will be: Should she even try it?